What kind of growth do we need?


The last article of this series is about the climate crisis and the new social narrative we need in the effort to tackle it.

Δούκας Τι ανάπτυξη θέλουμε

On 9 August 2021, the 6th Report of the UN's “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change” (IPCC) was released. And this Report talks about a “code red”.

Global warming is happening faster than we feared and humanity has a huge and undeniable share of the blame. The Earth's average surface temperature is expected to exceed the target of 1.5 °C (above pre-industrial era levels) around 2030 under all greenhouse gas emission scenarios (from the most optimistic to the most pessimistic), based on existing conditions and ambitions. A full decade earlier than the previous UN projection. 

In Greece, with major fires following one another and hundreds of thousands of acres of burnt vegetation and damaged ecosystems, it is clearer than ever that the climate crisis is here and will only get worse.

So this is the time to face reality and act accordingly. Let's start with a few observations.

Despite any efforts to promote clean energy sources (such as solar energy), fossil fuels currently account for 80% of the world's final energy use. While energy saving is, in rhetoric, the top priority, in practice energy consumption has increased by 50% since 1995. And if in 2020, due to the pandemic, there was a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, 2019 was a record year for emissions, as they were 62% higher than at the start of the climate change negotiations (1990). In fact, the 2021 data so far show a new annual record. And these pressures are not only on the natural environment but also on social inequalities, which are increasing dramatically and taking new forms, such as the “new climate migrants” uprooted from their homes in our country by the fires, creating an explosive mix without historical precedent. 

And if it is difficult to directly link the fires we have experienced in our country to climate change, the rise in temperature and increased drought in areas such as the Mediterranean– are certainly making them more frequent, bigger (megafires), more intense, more destructive and longer lasting. In addition, these fires release frightening amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and destroy the trees that could absorb it, thus feeding climate change and creating a death spiral. Significantly, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions due to the lockdown has been more than offset by the recent major fires in Australia. 

So what is happening and despite the declarations we are moving in the opposite direction to the one we want?

The problem lies in the basic assumption of the current development narrative. The prevailing belief is that we can have economic growth while ensuring that natural ecosystems are not degraded but continue to provide the lands, resources and services on which our well-being depends. Even the most advanced political strategies (e.g. the European Green Deal, the UN Sustainable Development Goals) have been built on this very assumption, i.e. the possibility of decoupling economic growth from the (over)exploitation of land and natural resources. 

The relevant scientific studies do not support this. On the contrary, they show that economic growth, land alienation and environmental degradation are strongly correlated. The footprint of material goods, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and greenhouse gas emissions have increased rapidly over the years. And while population growth was the main driver of rising consumption in the 1970-2000 period, the emergence of an affluent middle class, at all lengths, has been the strongest driver thereafter. Moreover, technological development has so far been associated with increased consumption, rather than vice versa.

So if economic growth cannot be decoupled from pressure on land and natural resources, is the reuse of resources within the economy the solution?

Indeed, circular economy policies aim, among other things, to improve waste management, reuse and recycling of materials. But in this case too, studies show that, on an economy-wide scale, only 12% of the materials entering the countries of the European Union are recycled. While recycling rates for materials such as plastics, paper, glass and metals can –and should– be greatly increased, there is still a long way to go. 

All this shows that there is a need to rethink the social concepts of progress and growth, opening our minds beyond consumption and economic growth (GDP)

New scientific models and social movements of “post-growth have begun to take shape. These emphasise values such as individual and social freedom, environmental balance and social and intergenerational justice. Model communities around the world are living with less materialistic principles, consuming less and reinventing the “well-being in simple living that reduces personal stress, environmental pressures and creates a different reconciliation with nature.

Alternative indicators for measuring progress have also been developed and implemented on a pilot basis (in addition to GDP), such as the genuine progress indicator and global biocapacity. These are more holistic indicators, including vital, intrinsic environmental and social values. 

Cities like Amsterdam are being redesigned on the basis of alternative theories, such as “Doughnut Economics” by Kate Raworth. Raworth's two concentric circles, resembling doughnuts, are the boundaries we should move within. The inner circle is about life’s essentials (such as food, housing, health care), while the outer circle ensures that the Earth's life supporting systems (such as climate and biodiversity) are not under undue pressure. This theory has also shaped new concepts, such as “Energy Adequacy, which describes how energy is conserved in a ‘green and safe haven, taking the traditional notion of energy efficiency one step further. That is, it is not enough to be more efficient, but at the same time one must demand less energy to adequately meet his/her needs

We need a new social narrative that drastically changes the way we produce and consume energy, build our infrastructure, our homes, move around, produce our food and use the land. 

So that the battle against climate change is not lost and so that “the morrow ends up not resembling a morrow anymore”.